What’s, like, the point of ‘like’?

Like  has become one of the bugbears of parents, teachers and the conservative media. It’s seen as a filler, a marker for stupidity and a lack of vocabulary, a ‘sign of our times’ (I assume not a good sign). Google ‘like discourse marker’ and you’ll find countless articles about the evils of like and how to train yourself not to use it – including by using a speech pathologist. Many commenting on like usage claim it is the degradation of language, due to the fact that children and teenagers have yet to learn linguistic competency, and say that it seriously affects their enjoyment of conversations and who they employ. However, is it really as pointless as people think it is? Or does it have an important function in modern language?

like legally blonde

What is like?

In grammatical terms, the like often disparaged is a  discourse marker, which means it can be removed from a sentence without affecting its semantic meaning, e.g. ‘it’s, like, a five minute walk away’. Other discourse markers include just, so, right and actually, and their function, according to Cambridge Dictionary, is to organise, connect and manage speech. Unlike these examples, like is currently primarily in non-standard, spoken language, meaning that it wouldn’t be your first choice in an essay or a speech in front of your boss and stakeholders.

Like became stigmatised after the spotlight on ‘Valley-speech’ in 1970s America, shown by Frank Zappa in ‘Valley Girl’ and Cher in Clueless. However, it actually originates as long ago as the 18th Century in the North East of England and before it was highlighted by commentators during the late twentieth century, instances are easy to find – for example, in Stevenson’s Kidnapped in 1886: ‘What’ll like be your business, mannie?’ However, now it’s very much above the level of consciousness, being referred to as the ‘like epidemic’ and another reason why millennials are generally terrible.

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Who uses it?

Whatever they may say, most people use like to some extent. Generally, usage of non-standard features increase while you’re a teenager due to rebellion, decrease around twenty when you enter the workplace, and increase at around fifty, when people stop caring about what they say. Like is no exception, peaking at 15-16. It is also used more frequently by women, though as they tend to lead linguistic change that is unsurprising.

Relatively speaking, like is a fairly new addition to the language – a reason why many linguists find it so interesting, as you can track its usage across real time. However, like many other new features, it is stigmatised by those who prefer traditional or Standard English and tend to look down on non-standard features.

like snip2
Example from WikiHow page on ‘How to stop saying like’

What’s its purpose in speech?

WikiHow claims that there are two correct usages of like – for similarity and enjoyment – and lists ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ example sentences. However, this view is not shared by everyone. While it may not be seen as socially acceptable by many, since the 1990s linguists have accepted that discourse markers have a function outside of filling pauses and buying time. A popular metaphor for language change is the process of evolution and the survival of the fittest; if like had no purpose, would it have risen to such prominence in our language?

In Taglimonte’s study, she found that 30% of instances occurred before a noun-phrase and 23% were at the start of a sentence. Another linguist found that they were used to introduce new pieces of information and significant facts – this is why they’re so common in questions and responses: ‘do you have, like, a red one?’ ‘You go like in the back room and they’re like in the left corner.’ Other stigmatised discourse markers also have functions – ‘you know’ guides listeners through arguments and events and nearly half of instances of ‘just’ are before verbs.

chandler like

In addition, a study from the University of Texas discovered that speakers that use higher levels of discourse markers are more thoughtful and conscientious, while Laserna et al described discourse markers as personality markers. Like clearly has both a grammatical and social purpose, whether it’s to frame a narrative or show conversational dexterity.

Although like is currently seen as a verbal faux pas in formal situations, as it spreads through the population it is likely to become more acceptable. While discourse markers are more common in speech, they are used heavily in writing; no one looks down on speakers or writers for using well or actually – in fact, I found many examples of these discourse markers in an article describing the evils of like. While at the moment, like is a stigmatised feature of speech, it may shift to standard spoken language, and later to writing. Languages change, and new features are introduced nearly constantly. Just usage has been steadily increasing, and has begun to be referred to as a ‘whiny excuse word’.  Resisting change, in any part of life, is pretty pointless – in twenty years there will be another word to complain about anyway.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. this article is,like, pretty damn good

    Like

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